When Bill O’Reilly interviewed President Trump last month and called President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia a killer, Mr. Trump did not object. He just responded that there are plenty of killers in America, too.
At this point, we can only speculate about the true nature of relations between the American and Russian presidents. No matter what, Mr. Trump came up with the perfect answer — the one most likely to appeal to Mr. Putin. (The Kremlin demanded an apology only from Mr. O’Reilly; if Mr. Trump had said that Mr. Putin was not a killer, the Kremlin might have requested an apology from the White House, too.)
In Russia during the Putin era, a remarkable phenomenon has emerged: Accusations have become decoupled from crimes. In an ordinary society, if a man is called a killer, he will either deny it or admit his guilt. Twenty-first-century Russia has chosen a third path: to take pride in one’s crimes while at the same time claiming to have no involvement in them. It’s a tactic of intelligence agents and spies, people who work in the shadows.
In 2005, Vladimir Kvachkov, a retired colonel in the military intelligence who had become an outspoken nationalist, was arrested in the attempted murder of Anatoly B. Chubais, who at the time headed the Russian electricity monopoly and who in the 1990s had been a leading reformer in the government. Attackers tried to blow up Mr. Chubais’s car and sprayed it with automatic weapons. While many raised questions about the prosecution, evidence pointed at Mr. Kvachkov: A car used by the would-be assassins reportedly belonged to Mr. Kvachkov’s wife. A jury, though, acquitted him, citing insufficient evidence. (Mr. Kvachkov was later sent to prison on very separate charges: He was accused of being part of a right-wing coup plot.)
It wasn’t Mr. Kvachkov’s acquittal that was remarkable about the case. It was his line of defense. On one hand, he denied a role in the crime; on the other, he argued that Mr. Chubais was an enemy of the Russian people and deserved to be killed. It’s unclear which argument proved more persuasive to the jury, but probably the second. Popular opinion in Russia holds Mr. Chubais responsible for the poverty that set in as a result of the neoliberal economic reforms, and at various times both the left and the nationalist opposition have condemned him. Mr. Kvachkov’s right-wing nationalist supporters deployed two mutually contradictory arguments: “He did not shoot; he’s not guilty” and “if he had shot, he would have been right to do so.” If the first argument saved the man from a prison term for attempted murder, the second made him one of the leaders of the radical nationalist movement.
The former K.G.B. officer Andrei K. Lugovoi had a similar experience. The British government is demanding his extradition in connection with the murder of Alexander V. Litvinenko, another former K.G.B. officer, who became a whistle-blower and died of polonium poisoning in London in 2006. Of course, Mr. Lugovoi does not admit his guilt. He goes even further in protesting his innocence, claiming that British intelligence was behind Mr. Litvinenko’s assassination. But at the same time, both Mr. Lugovoi and the official Russian news media call Mr. Litvinenko a traitor. Russia didn’t kill him, they suggest, but he deserved to be killed.
Before he was accused of killing Mr. Litvinenko, Mr. Lugovoi had been an obscure ex-spy. Then, in 2007, he ran for Parliament and won. (It doesn’t hurt that his election granted him parliamentary immunity.) In September he was re-elected to a third term. For Russia, Mr. Lugovoi became a hero for punishing a traitor. In 2015, Mr. Putin even awarded him a medal “for risking his life in the line of duty.” What exactly he had done one can only speculate, but the medal, of course, was not for killing Alexander Litvinenko.
President Putin’s approach is not all that different from that of Mr. Kvachkov or Mr. Lugovoi. He is from the K.G.B., he is always on duty, and his mission is not to avoid committing crimes, but to commit them in such a way as to avoid being caught. There is no particular taboo associated with the crimes themselves. This formula explains Mr. Putin’s position on the war in Ukraine: There’s not the slightest doubt that Russian soldiers are confronting the Ukrainian Army in eastern Ukraine, but Vladimir Putin has made it a fundamental matter of principle to refuse to admit this. He is not a military man; he’s a spy. For him, war is not war, but an espionage operation, and his most important objective is to maintain deniability.
Russia’s domestic policy operates similarly. There are “opposition” parties, but most of them are managed by the Kremlin. In Chechnya, Ramzan A. Kadyrov, who is nominally independent but a close ally of Mr. Putin, rules with an iron fist. He’s suspected of ordering assassinations of dissidents, like Boris Y. Nemtsov, who are both his enemies and Mr. Putin’s. Of course, no one is able to demonstrate a Kadyrov connection in the killings. In the news media, the censors are invisible and it’s not known whether they even exist, but few doubt that the Kremlin controls the content of all the federal TV channels. Even government-funded film productions are managed like spy operations. One of the producers of a historical film about Czar Nicholas II recently told the Russian news website The Insider about receiving a gym bag full of cash from a Putin administration intermediary.
Vladimir Putin’s Russia is an experimental space: one huge espionage operation that proceeds in complete secrecy. Personnel are appointed; billion-ruble deals are signed; laws are adopted, wars conducted. It would be downright strange if murders were committed according to some different pattern. In the standard investigation of a political killing in Russia today, the triggerman is arrested, but no one can name the guy who hired him.
Oleg Kashin is the author of Fardwor, Russia! A Fantastical Tale of Life Under Putin. This essay was translated by Carol Apollonio from the Russian.